Hawaiian feather cloaks, known as ʻAhu ʻula (Photo left courtesy Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa) in the Hawaiian language, were worn with feather helmets (mahiole). These were symbols of the highest rank reserved for the men of the aliʻi, the chiefly class of Hawaii. There are over 160 examples of this traditional clothing in museums around the world. At least six of these cloaks were collected during the voyages of Captain Cook. These cloaks are made from a woven netting decorated with bird feathers and are examples of fine featherwork techniques. One of these cloaks was included in a painting of Cook's death by Johann Zoffany.
The cloaks were constructed using a woven netting decorated with feathers obtained from local birds. The plant used to make the netting is Touchardia latifolia, a member of the nettle family. The coloring was achieved using different types of feathers. Black and yellow came from four species of bird called ʻōʻōs. All species had become extinct by 1987, with the probable cause being disease. Black feathers were also sourced from the two species of mamo, which are also now both extinct. The distinctive red feathers came from the ʻIʻiwi and the ʻApapane. Both species can still be found in Hawaii, but in much reduced numbers. Although birds were exploited for their feathers, the effect on the population is thought to be minimal.The birds are said to have not been killed but, rather, caught by specialist bird catchers, a few feathers harvested, and the birds then released.
Hundreds of thousands of feathers were required for each cloak. A small bundle of feathers was gathered and tied into the netting. Bundles were tied in close proximity to form a uniform covering of the surface of the cloak
CAPTAIN COOK AND KALANIOPU`U
When Captain James Cook visited Hawaii on 26 January 1778 (Photo right courtesy Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa) he was received by a high chief called Kalaniʻōpuʻu. At the end of the meeting Kalaniʻōpuʻu placed the feathered helmet and cloak he had been wearing on Cook. Kalaniʻōpuʻu also laid several other cloaks at Cook's feet as well as four large pigs and other offerings of food. Much of the material from Cook's voyages including the helmet and cloak ended up in the collection of Sir Ashton Lever. He exhibited them in his museum, the Holophusikon.It was while at this museum that Cook's mahiole and cloak were borrowed by Johann Zoffany in the 1790s and included in his painting of the Death of Cook.
Lever went bankrupt and his collection was disposed of by public lottery. The collection was obtained by James Parkinson who continued to exhibit it, at the Blackfriars Rotunda. He eventually sold the collection in 1806 in 7,000 separate sales. The mahiole and cloak were purchased by the collector William Bullock who exhibited them in his own museum until 1819 when the collection was again sold. The mahiole and cloak were then purchased by Charles Winn along with a number of other items and these remained in his family until 1912, when Charles Winn’s grandson, the Second Baron St Oswald, gave them to the Dominion of New Zealand. They were in the collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, but after 237 years, Ali'i Nui Kalaniopu`u's `ahu`ula and mahiole have returned home for public viewing at the Bishop Museum.
The ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole will remain on loan from the museum in New Zealand for at least 10 years.
“When they are shared with the people of Hawaii, I am sure they will inspire some wonderful conversations and insights, as they did when displayed here in Aotearoa New Zealand,” said Rick Ellis, chief executive of Te Papa Tongarewa.